If memory serves me right, the first time I met Shah Rukh Khan was in Mumbai around 2000. Nimbus, the then official broadcasters of the BCCI, had organised a glamour-packed award function night. Shah Rukh was hosting it. I was called on stage to give away an award.
Of course I knew him through his movies. But this was the first time I experienced his boundless energy, ready wit and magnetism. Shah Rukh also seemed very cordial. I was very impressed. Subsequently we would meet on and off. I would say we had also developed a kind of friendship.
When I was leading India in the South Africa World Cup, amid the team’s roller-coaster ride we were in constant touch. Shah Rukh himself was going through a tough time. He was recuperating from a back surgery in London. He would regularly encourage the team through his texts to me and I would reciprocate. Being a sportsman, I knew how injuries and operations can dent the confidence of top-quality professionals. When he got better, he thanked me for being with him during the troubled times in a touching SMS.
In 2008, while we were touring Australia for a keenly contested series, I received a call from Lalit Modi one night. We were in Adelaide. What Lalit told me was quite encouraging.
He said Shah Rukh has bought the Kolkata franchise and I, as the former Indian captain, must guide him all the way. I said, that goes without saying. Lalit also informed me that I would be leading the Kolkata franchise.
Back to the first IPL. I went to Shah Rukh’s house the night before the auction. I found John Buchanan there, and Andrew Leipus and Adrian Le Roux, the well-known South African physio-trainer pair. Buchanan had already been appointed coach of the team by the KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders) management.
I had not heard hugely complimentary things about John Buchanan from some of the Australian players. Warne’s opinion about him was public knowledge. I had gone with my wish list of 17-18 players. John had his own list. The format for picking players at the auction was completely different from what I had encountered in the past. We went into the auction and picked players.
The good part was that the KKR family seemed very cordial. Apart from Shah Rukh there was Jai Mehta, the co-owner, and his wife, the ever-smiling Juhi Chawla. I have always had a lot of respect for Shah Rukh, who is a self-made achiever. I had heard about how he went to Mumbai from Delhi with absolutely zero reference, and fought and won a battle on his own and became one of the greatest superstars.
I found his life hugely inspirational. Especially the story of his buying ‘Mannat’, the sprawling mansion overlooking the Arabian Sea where he resides. Apparently as a struggling actor he used to sit on the benches around the seafront overlooking the house. He told himself, one day this will be mine. I found it remarkable that our team owner could chase his dreams so successfully.
The players were really inspired by his presence. However, Shoaib Akhtar took it to another level. He seemed mesmerised in SRK’s company. I asked him one day, why do you keep staring at him? His answer had me in splits. Shoaib said, ‘I keep on thinking, is he the same man who holds the hands of some of the most gorgeous women in Bollywood? Jumps from a running train? Fights with 20 people and roams around in the rose gardens?’
A few days with Shoaib showed me that this man had something more than cricket in him. He viewed the world through his own lens and often came up with some extremely amusing observations. Sometimes I find myself laughing out aloud when I replay some of the 'Shoaib specials'.
I will always remember our first meeting in Adelaide. Shoaib would have only played eight to 10 international matches then. In the previous match the Pakistan captain was fined heavily for slow over rate. Much of it was happening because the fast bowlers, especially Shoaib, took so much time to send down an over.
I [once] asked him if he would shorten his run-up in the next match. Shoaib was surprised. He said, ‘Come on. They [Waqar and Wasim] can think of reducing it. I can’t. A Boeing 777 needs a runway to fly.’
Our first match was in Bengaluru against Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). It was the opening match of the IPL. Judging by the atmosphere the entire city seemed caught up in the IPL frenzy. I was stunned when I went out for the toss with Rahul. The cheer was such that I wondered if we were playing at Eden Gardens or Chinnaswamy.
We were batting first and I duly registered the honour of playing the first delivery in the history of the IPL tournament sent down by Zaheer Khan. I was partnering Brendon McCullum, who single-handedly destroyed RCB. It seemed the RCB bowlers had not adapted to T20 cricket.
We scored 222 and the momentum was such that the winner almost got decided when our innings ended. RCB was under tremendous pressure from ball one and folded up for 82. We had a huge win and Shah Rukh, who was present for the first match, seemed elated.
We were to attend a post-match dinner at the UB House, hosted by Vijay Mallya. We arrived at the scheduled time but there was no sign of RCB. We couldn’t see Mallya either. He arrived a little later and seemed very upset by the loss. RCB players were spotted after nearly an hour and their mood too was very sombre.
I told myself that this was new territory. The big franchise world was not cricket as we knew it. Here the rules were clearly different. Here the owners did not have the patience to hand-hold players during losses. They couldn’t stand failure and wanted overnight results. They had a completely different mindset.
I would say in KKR we were perhaps in a marginally better situation as Shah Rukh being a top film star, who worked in a creative industry of hits and flops, understood athletes a shade better. We won our second match as well and all seemed well. The media started saying KKR was on a roll.
But our happiness ended the minute McCullum and three other players left for their New Zealand duties. Ricky Ponting had to leave as well and with their departures, our fortunes nosedived. The early wins had inspired our fans. Now we started to disappoint them.
To make matters worse, replacement players were not up to the mark. I was the captain of the team but I had no idea that the replacement list had already been finalised. I was just informed at the team meeting that a few players were being brought in as replacements – Salman Butt, Mohammad Hafeez, Tatenda Taibu, etc.
I was both surprised and confused. Strictly from a cricketing point of view, better players ought to have been picked. Because of those wrong choices the team was left with only two match-winning, dependable batsmen in David Hussey and myself. We won a few games after that – I got a 57 ball 91 in Hyderabad against Deccan Chargers – but didn’t win enough to qualify for the knock-out.
I had insisted that the coach and the team owner pick Shoaib Akhtar at the auction. They had pointed out his inconsistent history. But I was pretty sure that I would be able to handle him. After all I was quite used to handling players effectively during my tenure as the Indian captain.
I knew Shoaib’s blistering pace was bound to make a difference in the shortest format. In fact it did. We knocked out Sehwag’s belligerent Delhi splendidly as the Rawalpindi Express cleaned them up, and Eden roared in delight. Shoaib took four wickets for 11 runs and we won a low-scoring match. It was one of our most memorable wins but we could not sustain it.
Handling Shoaib turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. Instead of turning around the competition for us, Shoaib suddenly decided not to play any more. He withdrew after making only three appearances despite my repeated requests.
He said he had an injury, but I for one found his injury mysterious. I pleaded with him that he had to send down only four overs. I said even with a small, niggling injury he must play. But it was impossible to get him on the park.
Our batting depth was already affected and now with Shoaib’s exit KKR’s fortunes plummeted further. I was looking at his IPL stats the other day. The three matches that Shoaib played for KKR produced five wickets with a mind-blowing average. But if such a bowler suddenly decides to go away, the team gets severely affected.
A Century is Not Enough by Sourav Ganguly (Juggernaut) is available now